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Before dying, she made a fund to cancel others' medical debt — now $60 million worth

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Casey McIntyre was 38 years old when she died last week from ovarian cancer. After her death, a note she'd written was posted on social media. It started, to my friends, if you're reading this, I have passed away. The post contained photos of her with her family, her husband, Andrew Gregory, and their 18-month-old daughter, Grace. It continues, to celebrate my life, I've arranged to buy up others' medical debt and then destroy the debt. More than 4 in 10 American households owe medical debt. The nonprofit group RIP Medical Debt is working to reduce that. For every dollar donated, they relieve up to a hundred dollars of medical debt. They buy the debt millions of dollars at a time at a fraction of the original cost. McIntyre included a link to the fund she set up with RIP Medical Debt in her honor, and as of today, it has raised more than $600,000, canceling around $60 million of medical debt. Well, to tell us more about Casey and her debt cancellation campaign, we're joined by her husband, Andrew Gregory. Andrew, thanks for speaking with us on this Thanksgiving, and I'm sorry for your loss.

ANDREW GREGORY: Thanks. I really appreciate you having me on.

SHAPIRO: Before we talk about the campaign, can you give us a snapshot of what Casey was like? As I was reading her posthumous post, her sense of humor really came through.

GREGORY: Casey was very, very, very funny. She was just a hilarious woman. From our very first date, she was cracking me up, and I was cracking her up. And we never stopped laughing even while, frankly, you know, she was struggling with her diagnosis of stage 4 ovarian cancer for four years. When I look back at that, it's pretty remarkable.

SHAPIRO: She had good medical insurance. And so this fundraising campaign is not to pay off her medical debt, but she was very aware that so many people in the country do not have access to good care. When did she become passionate about that? Was there some kind of personal connection to the cause?

GREGORY: You know, she worked as a publisher at Penguin Random House, so she had this really excellent corporate insurance. But frankly, like, as Casey met other cancer patients, like, on Instagram, on Twitter, other young patients with ovarian cancer - because it's very rare to have ovarian cancer when you're as young as Casey was diagnosed at 34 - people are looking at personal bankruptcy. People are looking at deciding whether they will receive care. People are looking at which bills they will stop paying for their care. And Case and I were just keenly aware, both of us, that our bills were not zero, but they were much closer to zero. They were doable for us. The other people were just being financially destroyed.

SHAPIRO: Was there one conversation the two of you had where she said, this is what I want my legacy to be after I'm gone; this is what I want to happen?

GREGORY: You know, last March, we saw a video online that was a little bit of a viral post where a Moravian church in Winston-Salem, N.C., not too far from where I grew up, burned $3 million of debt. And one thing they did that was really cool is all local debt. They've destroyed all of the medical debt in Yadkin County, N.C. And I just think that is really cool. And I showed that post to Casey, and they had done it through RIP Medical Debt as well. And Casey and I just - I think we saw it while we were in Memorial Sloan Kettering's waiting room. You're just in there scrolling all day long while you're waiting for chemotherapy to start. And Casey and I said, this is going to be one of our monthly donations. You know, we have a couple charities we give to. We're going to give to RIP Medical Debt.

And Casey came very, very close to dying around the end of May. And while she was in the hospital, we came to an agreement that this is what we were going to do. And Casey was very excited about it. And she got out of the hospital, which - we were very lucky that she did. She entered home hospice at the recommendation of her oncologist, and we were really lucky that she lived for six months. There's - you know how sometimes you're brushing your teeth with a loved one and, like, all of a sudden you have a much realer conversation than you usually would have because you're brushing your teeth for some reason? Like, at the beginning of July, we were brushing our teeth, and Casey looked at me all of a sudden and was like, did you think I'd be alive in July? And I was like, no, definitely not. Did you think you'd be alive? And she was like, oh, no, definitely not. We'd never talked about it in June - never. But...

SHAPIRO: Wow.

GREGORY: You know, it was just luck that some issues she was dealing with that really seemed like she would live for two or three weeks when she got out of the hospital cleared up, and she was able to live until November 12.

SHAPIRO: And she was 38 years old. Yeah. Do you think she could have imagined that this would have gone as viral as it has and raise as much money as it has raised?

GREGORY: I do not think Casey could have possibly imagined this response, the global press coverage it's gotten even as I think she would have thought that would have gotten some notice. But it's just wild to me, and I think it would mean wild to her that she is wiping more than $60 million of medical debt off the slate. That's - it's unbelievable to me. And I think it would have been unbelievable to her.

SHAPIRO: Do you have any way of knowing who you've helped? I mean, obviously, $60 million of medical debt, give or take, is a lot of people. Do you have any way of knowing who's affected?

GREGORY: Well, I was able to talk to the CEO of RIP Medical Debt, Allison Sesso. And one thing that's really - that really blew me away is I said to her, like, hey. We set this up as a national campaign. Would it be possible to set - like, maybe shift it to be more like New York City? - because Casey was such a consummate New Yorker. And Allison said, Andrew, like, this is too much medical debt for New York City, for us to buy. Like, we have to do a bigger area. And she also said - and I don't know what I'm going to say. But she said, there's going to be a letter. Like, each one of these people gets a letter in the mail that says, your debt is gone. Like, you're free of this debt. And she said, you'll get to write part of that letter, Andrew. So I'll have to think about what Casey would have wanted to say.

SHAPIRO: So each of those people...

GREGORY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: ...Will know about your late wife.

GREGORY: Yeah.

SHAPIRO: Have you thought about what you're going to say in that letter?

GREGORY: I think I'll try to draw from what she said in her last post and some of what I've written about her, you know, that people can find in the obituary that I put up online.

SHAPIRO: Do you want to leave us with one other Casey anecdote?

GREGORY: I will, and this is something that her mom told me last night. Casey often told me, as a publisher and a publicist, that the crown jewel - you'll think I'm buttering you up. But she really said the crown jewel of any book publicity campaign was being on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, Ari. And...

SHAPIRO: (Laughter) Andrew, I did not expect you to remember your late wife with flattery for this program.

GREGORY: But as a young publicist, her mom said that she remembers the day that she called her the first time that she was on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And she and her mom cried on the phone, knowing that this is a big moment in Casey's career, that she'd gotten a book on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. And I think it's extraordinary that Casey's campaign has reached so many, that Casey's sense of humor has reached so many. And, you know, thanks for helping it continue to reach more people, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Well, as a publicist, that conversation likely never mentioned her, was not about her. And I'm glad to be able to have a conversation that is. Andrew Gregory speaking there about his late wife Casey McIntyre's medical debt cancellation fund. Andrew, thank you, and happy Thanksgiving.

GREGORY: Thanks for having me.

SHAPIRO: And if you go to the page RIP Medical Debt, you can find the campaign for Casey McIntyre.

(SOUNDBITE OF NITSUA SONG, "NEW TOMORROW (FEAT. SALEEM AND TOPIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Ari Shapiro has been one of the hosts of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine, since 2015. During his first two years on the program, listenership to All Things Considered grew at an unprecedented rate, with more people tuning in during a typical quarter-hour than any other program on the radio.
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